COPING WITH COVID-19: The Importance of Routines

Julie Collins on creating new routines in unusual circumstances
Wanda Sevey

As the Princeton Theological Seminary community concludes another academic year and transitions to the summer months, the COVID-19 crisis continues. To help the community navigate this new season, experienced counselors in the Seminary community are providing guidance on simple methods you can use to reduce anxiety and stress. We hope you find comfort and hope as you read about tips, techniques, and testimonies from members of our campus and alumni community.

This week’s reflection is offered by Julie Collins, MA, CHP, CRNC.

Apart from concerns of becoming sick with COVID-19, or the challenges of managing the illness in ourselves or loved ones, one of the most common challenges of this pandemic has been the disruption of our routines. Feeling a bit yanked from most, if not all, of what’s familiar, and hurled into a whirlwind of change, uncertainty, and need for rapid adaptation, the anxiety and stress we all experienced was as natural as it was painful, or frightening, or (choose your adjective).

So what importance do routines have to our sense of well-being, either physical, or emotional and psychological? Generally, a lot.

Routines: What’s Important About Them?

Routines create rhythms in our daily lives.

Physically, our entire existence is built around rhythms. The most obvious is our beating heart. Our activity and sleep, overseen by cycling of critical hormones, is a vital rhythm that needs to happen daily for well-being. Our immediate survival and long-term quality of life are dependent on a vast array of rhythms.

Our brains and nervous systems, therefore, are always scanning for threatening interruptions of internal rhythms, just as they are for more overt external threats.

News routines samantha gades unsplash

Predictability of behaviors and activity create rhythms in our daily living that support our brains and nervous systems to foster a sense of familiarity, know what to expect, trust we are prepared, and consequently, feel safer. This increases our sense of ease, and reduces the need for anxiety — that ongoing, vigilant readiness for unpredictable danger.

Many of the lifestyle and wellness-oriented activities we’re very used to hearing about — regarding eating, exercise, proper sleep, prayer/meditation/contemplation — in and of themselves each have their particular benefits, which increase cumulatively with consistent repetition. But in addition, the predictability of a routine itself, helps reduce, and better still, prevent, the necessity for stress responses in the first place.

Making Meaningful Choices

Even as we witness some aspects of daily living beginning to open back up, it’s likely going to be a while before we return to the lifestyles we knew before. With subsequent waves of infection anticipated, we’ll continue to make adjustments, and it’s likely there will be some that are changed forever.

We can consider this an opportunity to cultivate a renewed vision of ourselves, and of our lives. With a great deal of change and uncertainty abounding, we can take the opportunity to cultivate predictability, grounding, steadiness, and calm to brave these demanding times with a bit more ease and love. I’m confident that you and those you care about both need and will appreciate these efforts.

To begin, take some time to identify one or a few experiences that feel meaningful to you to create routines around. Choose one, or no more than a few, to start. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Ideas might include:

  • Health practices around exercise, food and meals, sleep, etc.
  • Spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, reading, conversation
  • Relational practices such as in-person or video-based family time or date nights
  • Being in nature, growing a garden, hobbies, and other activities of interest
  • Activities of daily living, like cooking, washing the dishes, folding your laundry, cleaning, paying bills, or enjoying your morning coffee or tea
  • Study or work responsibilities
  • A counseling relationship

Then, consider what’s meaningful or important about this activity. Why are you choosing it? Take some time to tune in to the feeling or experience you know or imagine you’re seeking. For example: the calm you know you find when you walk in the woods; the ease of finding your clothes when they are folded and put away properly; the love and connection of spending quality time with a loved one; or the confidence of knowing you’re ahead of schedule with that important assignment. Find a genuine sense of gratitude. If this is something you’ve never experienced before, use your imagination. It’s a powerful resource.

How to practice:

  • How do you imagine creating routine around this? Is this a daily routine? Weekly? Monthly? Be specific, and keep a flexible attitude. We’re seeking more ease here, not the strain of unattainable perfection.
  • As you engage in the practice or activity, show up with your full attention and a sense of openness and curiosity. Include awareness of at least one level of sensory experience — sounds, smells, visual sights or images, tactile sensations, tastes/flavors if involving food. Slow down a bit, take notice of what you’re doing, take it in. For the moment, let go of habitual thoughts or judgments about the thing you’re doing, and just be there doing it.
  • Recognize and appreciate the impact of this endeavor, and the gift it is to you. This is how you stay connected to meaning, and avoid taking it, or others involved, for granted.

Beyond COVID-19

As we move through seasons of our lives, we change — we grow, learn, and move toward new things, move away from others. Life demands it. In response, what’s most meaningful to us, and the routines that serve us will, to one degree or another, be in flux and need to be adapted. Because of how we’re wired, we’ll always need and benefit from having the dependability of routines and rhythms in our lives. Giving mindful attention to our experiences, and the gifts inherent in every one, will provide the information and flexibility to do that well.

Julie Collins is a Certified Somatic Psychotherapy Practitioner, with specializations in body-centered approaches to trauma resolution, as well as nutritional and wellness interventions for mental health and addiction recovery. Julie holds a BA and MA in somatic (mindbody) approaches to healing and transformation, including movement-based expressive arts. Her training has strong roots in contemporary neuroscience, fostering a firm understanding of the deep-rooted impacts of chronic stress and trauma on both our bodies and psyches. Julie works with clients experiencing a range of concerns and limiting habits, including stress, anxiety, and depression; concentration and focus; addiction; relationships; organization and time management; sleep; and food and eating. She creates a safe and collaborative space for clients to explore, gain new perspectives on old painful patterns, and experience life with more agency, ease, and connection.

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Danielle Shroyer, Class of 1999

“To be in a community where I got to hear so many different perspectives—that was profound for me. I’m grateful for the curiosity, for the practice of learning that was cultivated for me at Seminary.”